Williams: I Lived — and Transcended — the Opportunity Myth. But for Students in National Study, It’s Much Harder
During one December in my high school years, a close friend of mine and I decided to make use of our study breaks by creating a film. While he possessed a digital camera, an old Pontiac Fiero, and a unique surrealist sense of humor, I lacked these things. However, my earnest nature allowed me to play the role of the straight man effectively, akin to Bud Abbott in the production.
From what I recall, we did not have any semblance of a plot. Most of the footage consisted of us clumsily exploring the wealthier areas of the county and openly expressing our grievances about the affluent individuals residing there.
During that time, I defined myself in opposition to their privilege. Decades later, this perspective remains unchanged. I took great pride in attending the public schools in my hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan. The campuses were diverse, integrated microcosms that reflected the beautiful pluralism of America.
However, our winter side project also harbored envy. It served as a bitter realization of the advantages enjoyed by the community we were documenting. Through my participation in countywide gifted and talented programs, I had come into contact with students from these schools. I was aware of the stark differences between their educational institutions and my own. I heard about their well-funded International Baccalaureate program and the numerous school clubs they had at their disposal.
While this envious pride may have temporarily eased the bitterness, it was not productive. It did not contribute to problem-solving or the creation of anything significant.
There were many problems to address. When I reflect on those days, as proud as I am of my public K-12 education, my paramount memory centers around waiting. It felt like an eternity, waiting for it all to be over. There were certainly intense moments of pain, such as witnessing an elementary school teacher mistreating a special needs student, experiencing regular violence in high school, or observing a teacher flirting with girls in their Halloween costumes. However, above all else, it was a prolonged and draining experience.
What is the purpose of American schools? They are meant to build a workforce, foster democratic citizenship, and promote personal growth. All of these definitions revolve around one central and evident theme: U.S. public schools exist to provide opportunities.
It is self-evident, as it is the primary role of public schools within a democracy. Schools educate children on how to navigate and thrive in our nation. They deliver a straightforward message: Excel here, and you will have a successful future as an American adult.
However, what if this message is deceptive? What if, as the recent report by TNTP suggests, the central educational message of U.S. schools is nothing more than "The Opportunity Myth"?
This report is an eye-opening read, particularly if your career is focused on expanding educational opportunities in the United States:
"Millions of students across the country invest their efforts in completing their education, only to discover that they are ill-prepared to achieve the lives they aspire to. They base their future plans on the belief that succeeding in school will create opportunities. They believe that showing up, doing the work, and meeting their teachers’ expectations will adequately prepare them for their next endeavors. We, as a society, have instilled this belief in them. Unfortunately, it is a myth."
Myths have two aspects. Firstly, they require a storyteller to create them, to share them with the world. "The Opportunity Myth" arises from our national obsession with the concept of pulling oneself up by their bootstraps—an idea that by passing exams and meeting certain criteria, individuals can overcome their circumstances and achieve success.
Secondly, real myths must be plausible enough to resonate with an audience emotionally. They need to be believed to hold any significance. Do students truly believe that persisting through school is worthwhile, or are they becoming disengaged?
U.S. schools lack the capacity to answer these kinds of questions. They are not designed to consider the voices of the students. Our systems of transparency and accountability serve the purpose of identifying areas where the education system is failing, rather than understanding how students feel about their educational experiences. Thankfully, "The Opportunity Myth" offers us a glimpse into how students spend their days in school and what they expect to gain from it.
"Opportunity is a scarce resource, and it is not distributed equitably."
"Classrooms predominantly attended by students from higher-income backgrounds allocate twice as much time to grade-appropriate assignments and five times as much time to effective instruction compared to classrooms with predominantly low-income students."
— Excerpts from "The Opportunity Myth" report
"The Opportunity Myth" highlights four crucial factors that determine the authenticity of children’s school opportunities:
1. Grade-Appropriate Assignments: Assignments that align with the students’ grade level and challenge their skills appropriately.
2. Strong Instruction: Effective teaching methods that facilitate meaningful learning experiences for students.
3. Deep Engagement: Active involvement and genuine interest in the learning process that promotes deep understanding and retention of knowledge.
4. Teachers Who Hold High Expectations: Educators who have high expectations for their students and believe in their potential to succeed.
From the early years of elementary school, I actively pursued the most academically rigorous academic tracks available in my town’s schools, including enrolling in dual-enrolled coursework at the local university. Although I wasn’t completely prepared for the rigorous college workload initially, my fundamental academic skills were well-developed. Throughout my K-12 education, I sought out and engaged in challenging academic work. The teachers in advanced placement, honors, and gifted classrooms were consistently among the best in my school district.
While my public schooling experience was not perfect, as a white student, I had access to high-quality classrooms that provided these essential resources. Consequently, despite feeling anxious and frustrated at times, it didn’t take me long to find my academic footing.
"The Opportunity Myth" reveals that 94 percent of surveyed students expressed that college was part of their future plans. Unfortunately, TNTP’s findings indicated that a significantly smaller proportion had access to the necessary preparation.
"While 82 percent of teachers expressed support for state-level standards in theory, only 44 percent believed that their own students could meet such high expectations."
During my junior year of college, I started contemplating the idea of joining Teach For America. To prepare myself, I secured a third job on campus through the federal America Reads and Counts program. This position mainly involved tutoring elementary school students in literacy a few afternoons each week. I also made an effort to connect with the exceptional teachers from my K-12 education whenever I returned home, observing their classes and seeking advice.
These experiences were invaluable as I learned valuable strategies from each teacher. However, one of my favorite teachers, an award-winning veteran with decades of classroom experience, shared a surprising observation.
"It has become much more challenging now," they remarked. "The crack-baby generation is starting to reach high school, and you can see the difference. They struggle to focus and learn at the same pace as their peers."
This teacher was a personal hero during my teenage years and a legendary figure at our school. They pushed me to produce my best work repeatedly and had a profound impact on my life. The realization of their perspective left me puzzled.
More worryingly, if an esteemed educator like them, with a history of professional success and mastery of their craft, held such views, what might be the thoughts of other teachers?
Consequently, it didn’t take long for me to discover that similar sentiments echoed among my colleagues when I joined the teaching profession. Countless teachers, including myself, lamented the ways in which our students’ families let them down. We lowered our expectations for our students, making excuses or even inventing them. However, in reality, we were merely excusing ourselves.
"In the four core subjects – English language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies – the average student spent nearly three-quarters of their time on assignments that did not correspond to their grade level."
During one of the gifted and talented tracks I participated in, high school freshmen were required to take a computer science course. Some components were standard, like learning to type and utilizing features of Microsoft Word. However, we also devoted significant amounts of time to peculiar research projects. We spent weeks, or perhaps even months, on an extensive self-guided research project about penguins. I didn’t comprehend the purpose then, and I still don’t. Nonetheless, I did learn how to switch my computer screen to play a game called Bolo whenever our teacher left the class for a smoke break.
For a privileged white student, losing a high school semester to playing online tank warfare may seem like a minor inconvenience during their first year of college. However, for students without the same advantages, this situation highlights the flaws in the so-called meritocratic American Dream, which promises equal opportunities for all.
Research has shown that students who have access to the necessary resources for a high-quality academic experience tend to perform better in school. When students who are initially behind in their studies are provided with appropriate assignments, effective instruction, active engagement, and higher expectations, the gap between these students and their higher-achieving peers begins to narrow significantly.
In my experience, while my public K-12 education appeared to be integrated at the campus level, I often found myself moving into more segregated academic tracks as I progressed. These tracks were predominantly made up of white and wealthier students, which allowed me to build upon my existing academic strengths. I didn’t truly feel like a part of an integrated school, but rather a bystander to integration.
A study conducted by TNTP, which reviewed 5,000 assignments and 20,000 examples across five school systems, revealed that around 40 percent of classrooms with mostly students of color never received a challenging grade-level academic assignment. However, when these students did have access to rigorous assignments, they performed as well as students in mostly white classrooms.
The key resources mentioned earlier proved to be particularly beneficial for students who were behind at the beginning of the school year. Those who regularly received challenging assignments and higher expectations experienced over seven months more academic growth compared to their peers who were also behind but lacked similar challenges.
It turns out that the achievement gap is perpetuated by a feedback loop. Students of color have less access to high-quality educational resources, which widens the academic gaps. The existing school tracking systems further amplify these gaps in access to quality education.
Students who are ahead academically are presented with better opportunities, which allows them to progress even further. This cycle leads to a wider range of educational opportunities for these students. Low-income students face similar inequities. TNTP found that classrooms with primarily higher-income students received approximately 2.1 times more grade-appropriate assignments compared to classrooms with primarily low-income students.
In summary, the U.S. public education system does deliver opportunity, but only to a select group of students. When students like myself perform well in school, we accumulate a profile of skills and knowledge that sets us up for success in our future lives. Interestingly, classrooms with stronger academic offerings tend to have a higher proportion of white students and students from higher-income backgrounds across all districts.
However, for students who are not part of these privileged tracks, the U.S. public education system often becomes a myth-perpetuation machine. It restricts their access to essential educational opportunities and, critically, it deceives them. These students are given the false impression that they are on track for success after K-12 when, in reality, they are not. Across all districts, white students who earn Bs are nearly as likely to have mastered academic standards as students of color who earn As.
The myth of opportunity comforts those of us working in school systems. It allows us to believe that we are doing everything we can to help students succeed, while conveniently ignoring the fact that there is more we could be doing.
Although education reformers have not always expressed it this way, their efforts over the past two decades have aimed to reallocate the four key resources mentioned in the report within U.S. schools. They have advocated for federal mandates and state-driven experiments to establish and raise academic standards nationwide.
These measures have been a crucial part of the policy infrastructure that enables us to discuss concepts like "grade-appropriate assignments" and "teachers with high expectations." They have provided a framework for creating a coherent K-12 academic experience.
However, setting these standardized benchmarks alone has not been enough. Reformers have also pushed for assessments to measure student performance against these standards. This allows us to track whether students’ grades align with grade-level academic work.
The challenge, of course, lies in determining what to do with all this data and transparency. Reformers have attempted to use accountability measures, such as overhauling or closing schools that fail to close the achievement gap or raise academic performance. They have suggested providing additional funding for staff coaching or implementing a combination of consequences.
Overall, the goal has been to create a fairer and more equitable education system that truly offers equal opportunities to all students, regardless of their background.
Tomorrow, a group of young individuals will arise from their slumber, step out of their dwellings, and enter their respective educational institutions. Upon arrival, they will engage in a variety of educational encounters, each greatly influenced by factors such as their family’s financial status, their racial background, and the size and location of their residences. Some fortunate souls will partake in stimulating and challenging lessons that propel them towards achieving the elusive American Dream.
Conversely, others will endure countless hours of lackluster instruction, accompanied by an underestimation of their academic capabilities and an array of assignments that fail to align with their true aspirations. For these individuals, the ultimate goal is to escape this detrimental environment and instead pursue their own life aspirations. However, upon completing their K-12 education, they will eventually come to the disappointing realization that they have been deceived, and that the prospects they were eagerly awaiting are nothing more than a misleading myth.